sexta-feira, 24 de janeiro de 2014

Puerto Rico in History, Imagined and Real By FELICIA R. LEE

Puerto Rico in History, Imagined and Real

KATONAH, N.Y. — On a cold, clear January day in 2008 Esmeralda Santiago walked downstairs to her office in her hilltop home here to immerse herself in writing the final pages of “Conquistadora,” her new novel. She was a week away from the deadline for this epic about her beloved Puerto Rico featuring a big cast of characters that includes the slave-driving, sugar plantation queen of the title, one Ana Cubillas. But when Ms. Santiago opened the computer document of her manuscript that day, the words looked something like this: Agttt Higg Bowq Sm. Pvxef byiz alwb.
“I’m thinking I must have been really, really tired when I wrote this,” Ms. Santiago recalled. Her next suspicion, based on her symptoms, was that she had suffered a stroke. The self-diagnosis was confirmed by a neurologist the next day. It ended up taking her about 18 months to relearn to read and write again in English. She is still struggling in Spanish, her first language.
This nightmarish detour was in some ways familiar, as it reminded Ms. Santiago of what it was like to learn to read and write English when she came to New York from Puerto Rico at 13, in 1961. “I went to the library and went to the children’s book section, and I started exactly the same process I did when I was learning English, connecting that word to that object,” said Ms. Santiago, who writes in English. Her novel was published this month by Alfred A. Knopf.
At 63, and with her long salt-and-pepper hair tied up, Ms. Santiago has a nearly unlined face and laughs easily and often. An open, fluid conversationalist, she was recently interviewed in her home, where she lives with her husband, the filmmaker Frank Cantor, and where they raised their two children, who are now grown.
Her doctors are still not certain what caused the stroke, Ms. Santiago said. Her self-imposed regime for recovery included listening to audio books to soak in language. They included the works of Edith Wharton; Larry McMurty’s “Lonesome Dove”; Henry James’s novels “Washington Square” and “Portrait of a Lady”; and Dostoyevsky’s “Brothers Karamazov.” In the hospital a friend brought her a stack of magazines ranging from teen titles to The New Yorker.

“I know more about Justin Bieber than anyone my age,” she said with a laugh. After the stroke her goal was not just to get back to her old self, she said, but also to get back to “Conquistadora,” the novel that represents more than a decade’s worth of research into the history of Puerto Rico and many years of thinking and writing about the various wellsprings of identity. “Conquistadora” was inspired in part by the realization that so much of her own family’s history had been lost, she said, as is often the case for poor people. Ms. Santiago’s mother worked as a seamstress and her father as a carpenter to support their 11 children.
The Conquistadora of the book’s title comes from the shiny side of the tracks. The dark-skinned, stubborn Ana flees the constraints of aristocratic life in Seville for the sugar plantation — Hacienda Los Gemelos — in Puerto Rico, with her husband and his brother, who are identical twins. A beautiful best friend, slaves, a sexy plantation manager and plenty of illicit love-making with both sexes end up figuring prominently in the tale as they all struggle to tame the land. Ms. Santiago plans a second book featuring many of the same characters.
“Conquistadora” mostly unfolds in the middle of the 19th century as Puerto Ricans began acquiring an identity beyond that of colonial subjects of Spain. The incidents depicted — slave insurrections, a cholera epidemic, hurricanes — are based on history that was largely unfamiliar to her before the research trips to Seville and Puerto Rico, Ms. Santiago said.
“I wanted to write a big book with lots of characters, and I wanted to explore what it meant and what it means to be Puerto Rican,” she said. She also wanted readers to meet a woman like Ana, who she says could have existed and still not have left behind much evidence of her unusual life running a plantation.
On July 12 Ms. Santiago began a multicity book tour (at least 10 stops) to meet the her fans, who send her an average of 125 e-mails a day. Both “When I Was Puerto Rican” and “Almost a Woman,” two of her three memoirs, are staples on middle-school, high-school and college reading lists. The students write saying that a reply from her will earn them an A on their assignments, Ms. Santiago said, and she is happy to oblige. Her work includes a previous novel, “América’s Dream” and two anthologies of writing by Latin American authors of which she is a co-editor.
Ms. Santiago represents an important point in the evolution of Latino authors in general and Puerto Rican authors in particular, said Daniel Gallant, the executive director of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in New York. “Esmeralda found a way to channel the themes of activism and resilience in her work,” he said. “She reconciled living in English and dreaming in Spanish, living in New York and returning to Puerto Rico. That dual identity is now itself a category.” Robin Desser, a vice president and senior editor at Knopf, Ms. Santiago’s English-language publisher, said that because the author is mostly known for her memoirs, “this feels like the start of a different trajectory for her as a writer.”
The reviews have been laudatory. Gaiutra Badahur wrote in The New York Times Book Review on July 17 that “Conquistadora” squashes the caricatures of the fictional plantation mistress who is a despot, demure or a bit mad. “The book’s strength is its Rubik’s Cube portrait of Ana, an unconventional, ambitious woman whose attitudes toward children, slaves and lovers perplex and engross,” Ms. Badahur wrote.
Some have called “Conquistadora” a Puerto Rican “Gone With the Wind,” a comparison that Ms. Santiago found surprising but perhaps inevitable. Both novels feature tough heroines with a love of the land at a time of slavery as well as a fraught but intense love affair with a rakish man.
Ms. Santiago said her sympathies were with those slaves. She shed many tears as she wrote, she said, thinking of the countless Puerto Rican men and women who came before her whose stories have been lost to time.
“I love where I came from more as a result of all that I learned,” Ms. Santiago said. “I felt about Puerto Rico the same way that you feel for somebody you love who has suffered a lot.”

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